News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 4, 2012

Conference encourages girls to explore STEM fields

Nearly 100 girls from across Valley take part at The Woods

Arthur Foulkes
The Tribune-Star

WEST TERRE HAUTE — Under a picnic shelter at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, a group of young girls rubbed their small hands on the belly of Cross, a pregnant Alpine goat.

“It’s kind of neat feeling [the unborn babies] moving around in there, isn’t it,?” asked Jenette Seal, a pre-veterinary studies student at SMWC who is doing genetic research using goats.

Giving middle school-age girls a chance to do hands-on science, math and engineering was the immediate goal of a two-day conference at The Woods. The longer-term goal is to get more girls to enter science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professional fields.

Middle school girls are vulnerable to social pressures that can make them drop any interest they might have in the STEM subjects, said Anneliese Payne, associate professor of education at SMWC and an organizer of the conference, which included a dozen hands-on workshops.

The science, math, engineering and technology fields are “wide open to girls,” she said.

Women make up about half of students in medical schools, according to a 2009 study published by Cornell University. However, women are underrepresented in math-intensive fields at the senior levels, the study said.

Stereotypes about men and women are part of the reason women are so underrepresented in STEM fields, according to the American Association of University Women. However, the Cornell study said women often prefer to raise children at times in their lives when their careers might be the most demanding.

Whatever the reasons for the gender gap in the STEM fields, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods is trying to help close it. Nearly 100 girls from Indiana and Illinois took part in the different workshops Saturday.

“I like science better now,” said Carina Antonini, a sixth-grader at St. Patrick’s school in Terre Haute, who had just learned how to make lip balm from natural beeswax in the Hulman Hall science building at The Woods in a workshop taught by Candace Minster with the White Violet Center for Eco Justice.

Isabella Lopes-Murphy, a Honey Creek Middle School student, and Yzabel Tio, an eighth-grader at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, also said they enjoyed learning about science in a hands-on way, as opposed to just learning from a textbook.

“My dad’s a biologist so I really like science,” said Lopes-Murphy.

Other workshops at The Woods Saturday included learning how to turn milk into ice cream, how to listen to the heartbeat of a horse and ways to encrypt messages to keep them secret.

The two-day conference included a keynote address and workshop on the “treasures of the rain forest” by Margaret D. Lowman, director of the Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and a research professor in the physical and natural sciences at North Carolina State University.

Because STEM fields require higher-level math courses in high school, girls must decide at a young age to pursue these subjects, Payne said. “So, if you think about it, they’re making their career choice by eighth grade,” she said. “We’re trying to show them science can be fun.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.